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Land Wars

Terra Infirma: Land wars


Land is as emotive an issue as caste in India. For millions, their sense of livelihood and identity is inextricably linked to the ground on which they have lived for generations. So when they are forced to give it up for development projects without reasonable compensation or rehabilitation, there is bound to be bitter resistance, even violence. As western UP burns, like Singur and Nandigram earlier, TOI-Crest looks at what ails India's land acquisition laws and how they are blocking growth as well as betraying farmers.

"Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength;and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life. " - Joseph Conrad, British novelist

It was appropriate that Rahul Gandhi's foray into street politics should begin with the land war that has erupted in Greater Noida in western Uttar Pradesh. In a dramatic move that took the Mayawati government by surprise, the Congress party's future prime ministerial hope dodged police barricades to sit with protesting farmers in the blazing May sun and courted arrest. The development was not just the first salvo in the battle for UP, which goes to polls next year. It was also a belated recognition that land is emerging as the single most contentious issue as India embarks on a rapid industrialisation drive to sustain a high growth trajectory.

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee was the first to comprehend the political significance of the daily battles in villages across the country by peasants and tribals struggling to protect their ancestral means of livelihood from rapacious developers and greedy governments. Her triumphant storming of the Left's citadel of West Bengal began with the land wars in Nandigram and Singur where protesting villagers braved police bullets to oppose acquisition of their homes and properties for industry. The protests would probably have been repressed, like so many others in different parts of the country, except that Mamata plunged in to take up the cudgels on behalf of the villagers and much to everyone's surprise, met with remarkable success. Ratan Tata was forced to shift his Nano plant from Singur to Gujarat, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's government scrapped the proposed chemicals hub at Nandigram and, in the process, Mamata scripted her victory.

There is little doubt that land wars changed the political matrix in West Bengal. A similar effort is underway in UP as the assembly polls draw near with all the anti-Mayawati parties - the Congress, the BJP, Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, and Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party - seeking to polarise state politics on the issue of land. The charge against Mayawati's government is that it acquired land cheaply from farmers in villages between Greater Noida and Agra on the pretext of building the Yamuna Expressway, but handed over hundreds of acres at a stupendous profit to a private developer to build townships. While the expressway is complete and cannot be undone, the farmers are demanding the rest of their land back so that they can negotiate a better deal for themselves directly with the builder.

A spokesman for the government hit back to say that the acquisition process had started in 2002 when the BJP was in power in the state and continued under Mulayam Singh. He also stressed that the farmers had willingly given up their land and that vested interests were now stoking trouble because of the forthcoming elections.

UP is not West Bengal and this vast and complex state is almost as varied as India itself. But whether the ploy of Mayawati's opponents succeeds or not, the violence rocking western UP since the summer of 2010 is a signal that land wars will be the biggest challenge for political parties and governments in the years ahead.

Those who have worked extensively on land acquisition issues, like National Advisory Council member Harsh Mander, economist Nitin Desai, and social activist Madhu Sarin, expressed concern over the almost daily violence over land in different pockets of the country. Whether it is a cement plant in Gujarat or a thermal power plant in Andhra Pradesh or a mining project in Orissa, villagers are up in arms against the manner in which they are being ousted from lands they have used and cultivated for generations. At the very least, they want adequate compensation and a sustainable rehabilitation package for their emotional and financial loss.

On the scale of emotive issues, land ranks as high as caste and community. "Land is a political mobiliser;growth is not, " asserts Desai. Mander agrees. "Land is one of the most contentious issues today. The government will have to find a politically, socially, and ethically acceptable solution otherwise things will get worse, " he says.

There is reason for anxiety. The human cost is one factor and while no consolidated figure is available for the number of villagers who have died in land wars across the country, some statistics are chilling. In Nandigram, 14 persons were killed in police firing. In Greater Noida's Bhatta and Parsaul villages, at least four persons, including two policemen, died in just one night.

The other cause for worry is the impact on growth and development. In their paper for IDFC's 'India Infrastructure Report 2009', Sebastian Morris and Ajay Pandey write, "Uncertainties, risks and delays resulting from protests and resistance on the part of people displaced due to land acquisition have become one of the most important bottlenecks for investment, especially in infrastructure. " In another paper in the same report, Runa Sarkar points out that an official review found that 70 per cent of the 190 delayed projects were held up because of land acquisition problems. She says that a CII study revealed that this is the top most concern for project developers.

Unfortunately, governments have been tardy in addressing the issue of land acquisition. While some states like Gujarat and Haryana have put in place policies and schemes that offer attractive compensation packages to farmers whose lands are being taken away, others states, particularly those with large populations of "voiceless" tribal communities, like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, have brazenly exploited hapless villagers on behalf of mining corporations, leading to large scale social unrest that is now taking the form of Maoist violence.

"The problem" says Desai, "is that land acquisition has become land grab. Politicians and corporate honchos are using the excuse of growth and development for land grab and private profit. " For instance, the Vedanta group was virtually gifted an amazing 6, 000 hectares of land by the Orissa government to build a university. (Most IIT campuses are less than 200 acres. ) It required the intervention of the Supreme Court to strike down the order.

Much needs to be done. The first step, emphasise Desai and Mander, is to repeal the antiquated colonial Act of 1894 that governs all land acquisition in the country. The act allows the government to exercise the power of eminent domain to seize land from private individuals for "public good". Desai points out, "The definition of public good is very loose, which is why the Act is grossly misused. The term should be strictly defined so that land cannot be acquired for profit in some other guise. "

A new land acquisition act, that tries to plug the loopholes in the old one, has been pending for four years. It has not been passed for various reasons including strident objections to some clauses from Mamata Banerjee. The NAC is now working on a revised act together with an equitable relief and rehabilitation act, which the Manmohan Singh government hopes to place in Parliament in the monsoon session.

The second step, says Sarin, is to review and revise land records across the country. According to her, they are hopelessly outdated and thousands of villagers do not even have proper papers to prove ownership of land they have lived on for generations. Worse, records that do exist often do not reflect today's ground realities, having been prepared by the British colonial administration more than 100 years ago. So wetlands are classified as wastelands, forest lands as revenue lands and so on, providing convenient loopholes for misuse by the politician-babu-corporate nexus.

Desai stresses the importance of keeping the government out of the acquisition process. "It should be a transparent commercial transaction with the project developer so that people get the best bargain for their land. I am strongly in favour of a collective bargaining provision in the land acquisition law to protect farmers' rights. Land grab must not be tolerated, " he says.


There are different models for land acquisition across India. Here are some of the more successful ones Town planning scheme has worked well in Gujarat where it was applied to build the Sardar Patel Ring Road around Ahmedabad and more recently for the BRTS corridor in the city. Under this scheme, the government identifies the land it needs for a project and draws up a new development plan for the entire surrounding area. Innovative methods like a higher floor-area ratio enable the government to compensate affected families with alternative properties in emerging developments. The annuity method was started by Haryana and is considered one of the best schemes in the country. It provides for compensation at market rates plus an annual payment with a built-in increase every year for 33 years. The equity method has been tried quite successfully in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Under this scheme, farmers get 60 per cent of the market value of their land right away and 40 per cent is given as equity in the project. As the project develops and land values rise, so does the value of the equity. The resettlement with common usage method was used for an industrial development near Jaipur in Rajasthan. After discussions with farmers, those who lost their lands were compensated at market rates with houses that were built for them. They were allowed to use the ground floor for commercial purposes and the first floor for their residence.

Reader's opinion (3)

Suryakant SharmaMay 18th, 2011 at 18:46 PM

thank you very nuch for this piece...it educates us abt the actual process of land aquisitions by the corporate and the resulting plight of the poor landowners who r thus exploited..

Madan PantMay 15th, 2011 at 19:08 PM

The draconian Land Acquisition Act 0f 1894 was never used by the British - the East India Company - the way our corrupt politicians are using it against the people and the poor, particularly post 1990! It's a land grab, pure and simple; should be repealed with a bang. Just go around to find tr

Neeraj DharMay 14th, 2011 at 23:03 PM

I think its high time that we should change and frame our law structure not only in Land but in other supporting departemnts like law and order and right to protest, so that each party involved is benefited, the farmers, the people and the builders.

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